We welcome Israel’s national theatre

Some letters responding to the ‘dismay‘ of Richard Wilson, Caryl Churchill, Emma Thompson, Mike Leigh, Mark Rylance and other boycotters who hope to wipe Israel off the stage of The Globe Theatre, where Israeli company Habima have been scheduled to perform the Merchant of Venice in Hebrew.

One letter, We welcome Israel’s national theatre,

We are delighted to see the Globe theatre welcoming Israel‘s national theatre, Habima, to perform The Merchant of Venice in London (Letters, 4 April). Founded in the early 20th century in Moscow, Habima is one of the first Hebrew language theatres, and is a symbol not just of the cultural success of the state of Israel, but also of the resilience of a people who have united to overcome continued persecution throughout their history. Habima itself encountered persecution under the Soviet government as well after the Russian revolution. Now, as then, there are those who wish to oppose their work, seeking to delegitimise the state of Israel and its success, the Jewish people, and even the Hebrew language itself.

Habima’s productions have always explored the challenges faced by the Jewish people, and its presentation of The Merchant of Venice on the London stage continues that important mission. Those who wish to hijack the artistic and cultural work of Habima for their own narrow political aims simply remind us of the vital importance of such work. No artists should attempt to silence the expression of other artists simply because they are Israeli. By trying to suppress the cultural exchange of ideas they demonstrate the continued persecution of Jews and Israelis even occurring in 21st-century Britain. We condemn the acts of cultural terrorism that some may try to carry out during Habima’s performances. We welcome Israel’s national theatre to London as another fine example of the UK and Israel’s many shared values.

Arnold Wesker, Ronald Harwood, Maureen Lipman, Simon Callow, Louise Mensch MP, Steven Berkoff

And another – For artists … it is an act of self-harm

If there is one justification for art – for its creation and its performance – it is that art proceeds from and addresses our unaligned humanity. Whoever would go to art with a mind already made up, on any subject, misses what art is for. So to censor it in the name of a political or religious conviction, no matter how sincerely held, is to tear out its very heart.

For artists themselves to do such a thing to art is not only treasonable; it is an act of self-harm. One could almost laugh about it, so Kafkaesque is the reasoning: The Merchant of Venice, acted in Hebrew, a troubling work of great moral complexity (and therefore one that we should welcome every new interpretation of), to be banned not by virtue of itself, but because of where the theatre company performing it had also performed.

But the laughter dies in our throats. With last week’s letter to the Guardian, McCarthyism came to Britain. You could hear the minds of people in whom we vest our sense of creative freedom snapping shut. And now we might all be guilty by association: of being in the wrong place or talking to the wrong people or reading the wrong book. Thus does an idée fixe make dangerous fools of the best of us.

Howard Jacobson

Boycotters of Israel’s artistic and cultural bodies fail in their stated aim on behalf of Palestinians. The boycott is badly conceived, discriminatory, badly targeted activism which abandons a sober look at how Israeli society and politics works and instead lashes out at Israel’s little guys – who are (and there may be a weird psychology at work here) often the ones in Israeli society most likely to share the boycotters’ view of Palestinians as subjected to grave injustice. Does anybody seriously believe it likely that those little guys will suddenly start refusing state money – taxpayers’ money, their livelihood – and hold their government responsible for their ill fortune rather than the boycotters who are most immediately responsible for harming them and the various genocidal entities dotted round their regional neighbourhood, who threaten to? Seriously? And if they do, where is the mechanism for Palestinian emancipation or a change of heart in the Israeli electorate? And it goes without saying that the boycotters don’t offer them any compensation or alternative support, which is the ultimate chutzpah. Refusal to join in with this weird boycotting game is the only dignified response. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which itself exists in a very unstable Middle East context, and a very oppressive world, obviously needs a different approach – creating reasons to cede ground and power.

And in the absence – over the decade-long lifetime of this particular incarnation – of any gains on behalf of Palestinians as far as I can see, boycotting Israel has counter-productive side effects. Paradoxically in the case of the cultural boycott the fabrications and authoritarian pieties of boycotters represent a new orthodoxy which brings out many people’s instinct for transgression. The trouble is, even if the boycotters of Habima aren’t themselves harbouring antisemitic beliefs (and maybe some of them are) their hostility, closed-minded bias and heroic self-image are midwife to a much more intentional antisemitism of a ruthlessness they can’t or won’t imagine, where the stakes for those who resist it will be far higher. So the renovated far right Harts, Atzmons, Eisens of this world gain ground, slipping onto programmes and campuses where they would never have been invited before boycotters started making out out that attacking Israel was the same as speaking truth to power.

The Globe Theatre deserves credit for refusing to participate in laying that ground.